South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus has already achieved multiple milestones not just in his career, but for the history of his country’s cinema. Hermanus’ sophomore feature, 2011’s Beauty (Skoonheid), was the first South African film to play in competition at Cannes, where it competed for the Un Certain Regard prize, winning the Queer Palm for best LGBTQ+ film throughout the breadth of the festival’s entire programme. In 2015, his third film The Endless River became the first South African film to premiere in competition at Venice. Five years later, Hermanus has released his most ambitious film to date: a loose adaptation of André Carl van der Merwe’s semi-autobiographical novel Moffie, about the experiences of a closeted gay teenager sent to complete compulsory military service in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Moffie is challenging from its title (a slur that roughly translates to “faggot”) onwards, unflinchingly depicting the toxically masculine, white supremacist ideology young soldiers had to become indoctrinated into. In the case of Nicholas Van Der Swart (Kai Luke Bremner), his mission to train at the country’s border with Angola coincides with having to hide his identity, as other forcibly conscripted soldiers are belittled for any character traits that don’t conform to the masculine ideal set out by the white minority government.
The project was challenging for Hermanus, a non-white filmmaker born in the later years of Apartheid who never imagined he’d make a film following the struggles of white characters during this period. Speaking to Vague Visages, the Moffie director explained how he came beyond seeing the project as a “story about the trauma of white men,” and how the film wound up at the centre of an international conversation about gender-based violence.
AR: Andre’s book was first published in 2006 and was a sensation in South Africa. I was just wondering what your relationship to that book is — when did you first read it, and when did you decide to adapt it into a film?
OH: The producers who are based in London reached out to me and asked if we could meet. They came over to South Africa where we had lunch, and they told me about this book Moffie. At this point, I’d never read it but had seen the cover on the shelves of bookshops. The word is such a provocation that when you see it on a cover, you definitely do a double take.
The producers weren’t sure what it was about the book that they liked, and — after I read it — I wasn’t either. The characterisations and the plot line are very different — we just kept the name of the lead character and the sexual coming of age, but we went further with our research. The book was an inspiration for the setting and exploration of this time in our history as portrayed in the film, but — from a story point of view — we went beyond what was on the page.
AR: And what was the extent of that research? The film takes place in the immediate years before you were born [between 1981 and 1982]. Has this late Apartheid period become so ingrained in the country’s historical awareness that you didn’t need to do intensive research, or was it the opposite?
OH: For me, this project was a very big departure, as I’m not a white South African. First was the challenge of being asked to make a film about the trauma of white men during Apartheid, which — as a pitch — just sounds ridiculous. A non-white South African will just laugh that off and say “what are you talking about?” That’s why this was a difficult experience in the beginning, as I didn’t know what I could bring to this film. My family aren’t white, so my dad wasn’t conscripted into this conflict, I have no reference of what these men came out of this experience like.
And then it required a lot of research on top of that; a lot of reading, and a re-evaluation of many of the people I worked with, as I realised that people I work with all the time — our production designer, some of our producers — either went through this or had family that went through this. So, it consumed my life for three years, learning more and discovering these experiences people had, from those who went to the border to those who were in the navy. There is a huge spectrum of perspectives on this time, and that was all folded into the story of the film.
AR: And to just go back to how non-white South Africans would react when hearing this premise — did you also think it would be ridiculous to make a film about the trauma of white men during Apartheid?
OH: I think that I understood the book was very much about the experiences of gay men, and how the military intended to beat the character’s sexuality out of him [Nicholas], as well as shaming him. That’s what that word is there to represent, this act of shaming, within this hyper masculine environment. I identified with the shaming and saw that there was a value in the idea that no matter what your race in South Africa, if you are part of the LGBTQIA+ community you have a relationship with shame.
You have a moment in your life where you become aware of your sexuality, and you arrive at this crossroads where you decide between fully embracing it and showing to the world around you, or creating this other version of yourself to mask any kind of detection. I think that essence of the story for me broke out beyond the overriding racial dynamics in South African society during that period.
AR: As well as the years of historical research, did this film go through an extensive casting process? I noticed that this is the first credit for many of the actors.
OH: It was a major challenge. The playing age of many of the characters is pretty young, so you’re looking for actors who are in their early 20s and late teens, which means you’re often faced with untrained actors and drama students. The casting process took about two years, and we ended up with an amazing combination of actors, two of whom were still in high school and had never acted before, and then a few others who were slightly older and more seasoned. But, for all of them, this was the biggest thing they’d ever done.
One of the benefits of making a film set in the army was that it allowed us to treat them like they were in the army, so they bonded very closely. It was a way of moving them around and preparing them like you would a troop. I think if I was making a film with the same actors in a different environment it would be more of a challenge, so from now on, I think I’ll always try and make it an army experience on the set!
AR: Would it be fair to see this as a companion piece to your earlier film Beauty (Skoonheid)? Both films appear to me to be about two very different kinds of gay repression in South African society.
OH: I think the two films come from very different places. Beauty was very much a film about beauty as an ideal and a curse — the main character doesn’t think he possesses any beauty and becomes infatuated with a beautiful object, his pursuit of it seeing his self loathing spiral. Moffie is very different; it’s generational, it deals directly with shame, and the lead character has a journey of awakening, whereas in Beauty, that character’s journey is very much defined by his yearning.
AR: This also isn’t the first time Moffie has been adapted — there was a dance piece that made international headlines in 2012, largely due to how it drew parallels between this South African story and America’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy at the time. When adapting Moffie, were you thinking about creating similar concessions for international audiences?
OH: I have never seen the dance piece, but because the title is such a slur, such a loaded and weaponised word, I think we knew that making a film with that title would have people in South Africa questioning why we made that choice. So, telling a story about this character’s journey and calling it “Moffie” immediately creates a conversation in South Africa about shame.
The day the film premiered in Venice, there was the biggest march in the history of South Africa, a march against gender based violence — over a million women marched to challenge toxic and violent masculinity. So the day after the premiere, we were faced with the world’s press to talk about Moffie, and we instantly became a film about those men, and how men like that are made — this masculine propaganda and brutality these boys have forced upon them. We became part of a conversation we never imagined while making the film. I did an interview with The New York Times where I was asked about making this important film at a time when this conversation was happening in the country, but — in a sense — it was completely accidental.
AR: And in general, have the reactions from international audiences differed from those in South Africa?
OH: For an audience here, this is a personal memory, and a lot of people see this in different ways. Some see it to be a very accurate portrayal of their experiences — there are those who can’t believe that their parents or other men they know went through this, and there are black men who didn’t know that white men were traumatised during Apartheid from being forced into this.
Then there’s the international audience, and — for many of them — this is just a look into a history they just didn’t know about before. They know about Apartheid but weren’t fully conscious of this conflict. And there’s more to it; we only scratch the surface of the complexities on this war for independence with Angola.
AR: So, now you’re in self-isolation in the remote countryside. Are you already thinking about your next film? Are you currently working on a script?
OH: Moffie has been really huge in terms of my career, it’s opened a lot of doors internationally. So, for the first time, I’ve been offered scripts that are ready to go, in the later stages of development. Hopefully production on the next film won’t last three years!
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.